Saturday, November 9, 2019

Adam Driver Brings His Superhuman Focus to Scott Z. Burns' Directorial Debut, The Report

Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones
(Scott Z. Burns, USA, 2019, 118 minutes)

After watching The Report, I read Katherine Eban's "Rorschach and Awe," the 2007 Vanity Fair article that inspired Scott Z. Burns' new docudrama. The filmmaker has personalized the story by honing in on one individual, Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), the senatorial staffer who helped to bring the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program to light, but the article and the film are two entirely different things--to the extent that Eban never even mentions Jones. If you're interested in psychology, the former is where it's at; if you're interested in one-guy-against-the-system thrillers, like Michael Mann's The Insider (which also drew from a Vanity Fair article), the film is more likely to meet your needs.

That isn't a knock against The Report, which is definitely worth seeing, but it hits familiar--if welcome--beats along the way, while the article presents a far thornier reality. For instance, Burns makes little mention of the armed services-aligned psychologists who formed a task force to assist the CIA in the wake of 9/11. Through their $80 million contract, they led the agency to believe that enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) would best elicit intelligence from detainees, except they don't. The "rapport-building approach," as Eban terms it, does. Historically speaking, humane treatment provides the most reliable results, whereas EIT is a great way to get detainees to say literally anything to make the torture stop.

Annette Bening as Senator Dianne Feinstein
If George W. Bush and his Cabinet are bad guys for encouraging and defending EIT--and they are--so is the American Psychological Association (APA) for participating in the sham.

In order to neutralize the politics of the situation, Burns downplays Bush's involvement, while casting CIA Director John Brennan (an excellent Ted Levine, whose participation is deviously perfect in light of his role as a serial killer in Silence of the Lambs) as the primary villain. It works dramatically, in part because Bush has become an over-familiar presence in movies and TV shows, from Oliver Stone's W. to That’s My Bush, but I wonder if Burns would have tread so lightly if Bush wasn't still with us, painting terrible portraits of dogs and laughing it up with Ellen DeGeneres and the Obamas.

If Burns takes care to note the parts Condeleezza Rice and Dick Cheney played in promoting EIT as a geopolitical good, he keeps the focus on his lesser known protagonist at all times, sketching in his background with the broadest of strokes. All we really know about Jones is that he's a relentless workaholic. In the film's early stages, he assembles a team, including April (Barry's Sarah Goldberg) and Sean (Alexander Chaplin), to uncover as many details as possible about the EIT program. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) provides the resources they need, but as the years grind on, Jones's colleagues move on to other, less emotionally draining projects, while the single, childless staffer forges on, largely on his own.

Steven Soderbergh, who worked with Burns on The Informant! and The Laundromat among other films, produced The Report, and in the press notes, the writer-director compares Jones to the star of Soderbergh's Erin Brokovich. Like that film, his never attempts to mimic a documentary, the mode of many recent handheld docudramas. It is, unabashedly, a movie, making it a throwback to the days of Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men. Burns even stages scenes in under-lit garages in which Jones has secret meetings with a physician (Tim Blake Nelson) and a reporter (Matthew Rhys). Chances are these real-life meetings played out in more quotidian ways, but they provide the dramatic juice this dialogue-driven film needs.

Scarlett Johansson and Driver in Marriage Story
If Adam Driver is never less than very good, there's no real emotional arc here. We know Jones will get the job done, and he does, but it doesn’t really change him, not as much--or as tragically--as similar system-fighting efforts would change NYPD plainclothes officer Frank Serpico or chemical technician and union activist Karen Silkwood. Annette Bening also deserves credit for her understated, quasi-unrecognizable work as Senator Feinstein, but as a director, Burns isn't at the level of Pakula, Lumet, Nichols, or even Soderbergh, and that's okay. He would probably be the first to agree, but this is an important story, and I'm glad he's told it.

By contrast, Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, which opens at the Crest on November 29, shows the actor's range like never before. There's a sequence in which Driver and Scarlett Johansson's soon-to-be-divorced couple let down their guards to say all of the terrible things they've been repressing for years. Driver's Charlie yells so loud and so hard that he finally breaks down in heaving sobs. It doesn't feel like acting, but like Driver is re-living something truly traumatic. No matter how he got there, though: it is acting. What he does in The Report is worlds away, but it's still acting to play someone so diligent without making him dull, pedantic, or too good to be true. As Burns says in the press notes, he's "incapable of being boring."

In the end, Jones would produce a still-classified 6,700-page report for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Distilled to 525 pages, his findings were shared with the world, and I'd like to think they made a difference. Jones deserves credit for his dedication, but this country has broken my heart too many times for me to truly believe that the US will never engage in EIT again. It probably has, and it probably will again, but I also hope that men and women like Jones will continue to speak truth to power when they encounter that kind of injustice. It's not so much that torture is un-American, but that it is American--especially when inflicted against bodies of color. It would be nice to live in a country where that is no longer true.

The Report opens at the Varsity on Nov 15. It will be available on Amazon Prime on Nov 29. For extra-credit reading, I recommend this New York Times article, "The Report and the Untold Story of a Senate-CIA Conflict."

No comments:

Post a Comment